The top 25 Irish players to play in the Premier League era
To celebrate 25 years of the English league, Emmet Malone picks his Irish standouts
The statistics come from the Premier League, but the preferences and prejudices – based on an unquantifiable mix of sheer skill, longevity and success – are all mine. Years mentioned refer to seasons in which at least one Premier League appearance was made. Duplicates indicate that the player featured for more than one club during the season in question
1. Roy Keane
Seasons: 14, Appearances: 366, Goals: 39, Assists: 33
Nottingham Forest 92-93, Manchester United 93-06.
The Corkman was one of the standout players of his generation, irrespective of nationality, and the driving force behind the seven titles United won during his time there. Could play attacking or defensive midfield role and still look the best player on the pitch by a distance. Fiercely combative but immensely skilled in the way he used the ball too. Made the PFA Team of the Year five times but took all the big awards after his outstanding 99-2000 campaign.
2. Denis Irwin
Seasons: 11, Appearances: 328, Goals: 18, Assists: 25
Manchester United 92-02, Wolves 03-04.
Football is awash with “the one that got away,” yarns but Leeds United letting Irwin go is up there as the Premier League’s version of Decca rejecting the Beatles. The Corkman had everything you could want in a full back – pace, a pinpoint cross, positional sense and brilliant timing in a tackle.
At United, he won seven titles and countless individual accolades, with Ferguson regarding him as one of his greatest signings.
3. Damien Duff
Seasons: 16, Appearances: 392, Goals: 54, Assists: 55
Blackburn 96-03, Chelsea 03-06, Newcastle 06-09, Fulham 09-14.
One of the few players on the list to thrive at a top club, Duff made the PFA team of the year while at Blackburn but played some scintillating attacking football during his first two, title-winning seasons at Chelsea. He could have stayed beyond a third season, and probably should have, but he will be remembered for the heights reached on his best days.
4. Robbie Keane
Seasons: 13, Appearances: 349, Goals: 126, Assists: 37
Coventry City 99-00, Leeds 00-03, Tottenham 02-08, Liverpool 08-09, Tottenham 08-11, West Ham 10-11, Aston Villa 11-12.
As Martin O’Neill repeatedly points out, Keane was the last really high quality goalscorer the country produce. Indeed, it is possible his career did not quite reach the heights his talent actually merited. In his best years at Spurs, though, he averaged just short of a goal every other game thanks to his pace and close-range finishing. He certainly seemed good enough at that point to make an impact at Liverpool had the club’s politics been a little more favourable.
5. Paul McGrath
Seasons: 5, Appearances: 166, Goals: 6, Assists: 3
Aston Villa 92-96, Derby County 96-97.
Though most of his best years were at Manchester United in the pre-Premier League era, McGrath’s performances for Villa in the year that it was formed were key to the club mounting a prolonged title challenge.
They fell away badly at the end but he still made the PFA team of the year, the only one at the club to do so. A magnificent reader of the game, McGrath always seemed to know where the danger was and how best to snuff it out. A great tackler and strong in the air.
6. John O’Shea
Seasons: 16, Appearances: 445, Goals: 13, Assists: 13
Manchester United 2001-11, Sunderland 2011-17
Having signed for United as a 17-year-old in 1998, making his debut in the League Cup a year later, O’Shea went on to enjoy a decade of unceasing success once he made his first team breakthrough in the 2001-02 season. His tally of 15 major honours, which included five Premier League titles, the Champions League and an FA Cup, was only topped by Roy Keane and Denis Irwin (19). Alex Ferguson’s Mr Versatile, he played in every position in the team, even as an emergency striker and, on one occasion, in goal after Edwin van der Sar was injured. Now 36, O’Shea has signed on for another season with Sunderland after their relegation from the Premier League last April.
7. Steve Finnan
Seasons: 8, Appearances: 236, Goals: 1, Assists: 14
Fulham 01-03, Liverpool 03-08, Portsmouth 09-10.
The Limerick-born right back learned his trade in the lower leagues but burst onto the Premier League scene after helping Fulham to promotion in 2000/01, earning a place in the PFA team of the year in his first top-flight season. Joined Liverpool a year later for £3.5 million and made 149 league appearances over the next five campaigns despite injuries sidelining him for periods. Featured in the Champions League final Liverpool won in 2005 – albeit in the half they were hockeyed – before going off injured.
8. Shay Given
Seasons: 19, Appearances: 451, Goals: 0 Assists: 2
Blackburn Rovers 96-97, Newcastle United 97-09, Manchester City 08-10, Aston Villa 11-13, 14-15, Stoke 15-17.
The Donegalman spent more than two decades at top-flight clubs and featured in almost 20 campaigns, an astonishing record for a player who also made appearances for Swindon, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. At his peak, he was right up there in terms of the league’s best goalkeepers and was twice reckoned to be the best in a season by his fellow pros. A little unlucky, perhaps, that when his big move came it was to a club impatient to make a name for itself and whose emerging England international, Joe Hart, looked better than he turned out to be.
9. Richard Dunne
Seasons: 16, Appearances: 431, Goals: 11, Assists: 5
Everton 90-01, Manchester City 00-01, 02-10, Aston Villa 09-12, QPR 14-15.
The big central defender had quite a career considering how close he seemed to come to blowing it in his early, “Honey Monster” days. The last-gasp element to his game made for a record-breaking tally of own goals, but he prevented a fair few with what seemed like almost impossible interventions and could more than hold his own on the physical side of things. His four straight player of the year awards at Manchester City put him in some illustrious company now. Also made the PFA team in 2010.
Seasons: 14, Apps: 377, Goals: 8, Assists: 18
Tottenham: 1993-94, 96-01, 02-04; Newcastle: 04-08; Birmingham: 09-11
The Dubliner burst onto to the scene with Spurs in 1996/97 and was one of the Premier League’s best right backs for the following decade. He was quick, aggressive and scored the occasional screamer. He twice made the PFA team of the year while at Tottenham, had a few good seasons at Newcastle, and enjoyed an Indian summer with Birmingham.
11. Steve Staunton
Seasons: 11, Appearances: 288, Goals: 13, Assists: 28
Aston Villa 92-98, Liverpool 98-01, Aston Villa 2000-03.
Having won the league as a left back with Liverpool in his first stint at the club, Staunton made no secret of his disappointment at being allowed to leave by Graeme Souness, but he did enough at Aston Villa over the seasons that followed to make the Scot’s move look like a mistake. Indeed, he later rejoined the Merseyside club. His best Premier league years, though, were probably those first few at Villa Park where he helped to provide a strong defensive base and real leadership.
12. Niall Quinn
Seasons: 9, Appearances: 250, Goals: 59, Assists: 37
Manchester City 92-96, Sunderland 96-97, 99-02.
After the frustration endured at Arsenal, Quinn was highly valued at City and was a key member of the club’s first team when the Premier League got going. In addition to scoring, winning aerial battles, holding the ball up and bringing others into the attack were also key parts of the Dubliner’s game. He managed 14 goals in 37 appearances for Sunderland in 99-2000, having formed a hugely effective partnership with Kevin Philips, who got 30 as the club finished 7th in the top flight.
13. Seamus Coleman
Seasons: 8, Appearances: 206, Goals: 18, Assists: 17
The miniscule fee Everton paid for him is still celebrated by the club’s supporters in song but Coleman has long since gone beyond merely looking like incredible value for money. Having played more than 200 top flight games and scored nearly 20 goals, he has made his name as one of the division’s very best attacking full backs and was included in the PFA team of the year a couple of seasons back.
14. Gary Kelly
Seasons: 10, Appearances: 325, Goals: 2, Assists: 31
Leeds United 93-98, 99-04
Kelly took a year or two to announce his arrival at Elland Road but he did it with a bang in the 1992-93 season, playing every game and earning a place at the end of it in the PFA team of the year, aged just 18. He went on to play in the top flight for the club for more than a decade and retired when he eventually fell out of favour. In the meantime, he was an outstanding full back, a great defender but also possessing the pace and drive to push forward down the right flank.
15. Kevin Kilbane
Seasons: 11, Appearances: 325, Goals: 15, Assists: 18
Sunderland 99-03, Everton, 03-07, Wigan Athletic 06-09, Hull City 08-10.
Kilbane’s versatility, energy and application enabled him to play at the top level for more than a decade, although his remarkable international career may be what he will be best remembered for. Equally happy, it seemed, to play either at left back or on the wing, the Preston-born player was probably more effective as a winger, playing his best club football there during his time at Everton, but he repeatedly demonstrated an ability to slot in just about anywhere the team required him to play.
16. Ian Harte
Seasons: 11, Appearances: 237, Goals: 28, Assists: 36
Leeds United 1995-04, Sunderland 07-08, Reading 12-13.
Harte established himself pretty quickly as a first-team regular after arriving at Elland Road in the mid 90s and if he wasn’t quite the defender that his uncle, Gary Kelly, was, he certainly had something extra to offer by way of that left foot at the other end of the pitch, especially from set-pieces at which he excelled. Had several very strong seasons during what was an exciting spell for the club. Not unlike the club, he ran out of steam a bit before brief periods back in the top flight with Sunderland and Reading.
17, Glenn Whelan
Seasons: 9, Appearances: 277, Goals: 4, Assists: 12)
Stoke City 08-17.
The Dubliner might divide opinion among Ireland supporters but there is little doubt around Stoke about the scale of his contribution over the past decade. Quietly effective sitting in midfield, he helped protect the team’s central defence, breaking up the attacking play of opponents, winning the ball and distributing with remarkable efficiency. There were few accolades along the way but he was one of those who allowed others to catch the eye.
18. Jon Walters
Seasons: 8, Appearances: 230, Goals: 43, Assists: 19
Bolton 2002-03, Stoke City 2010-17
If this was a value for money list, Walters would probably be top 10, with the versatile striker having provided a remarkable return on Stoke City’s very modest investment. Hugely energetic and combative, the now 33-year-old seems equally effective when played up front or out wide and his goals return would certainly be higher if he had been used more centrally over the years. As it is, he produces the odd spectacular goal but it is for his ability to pressure opponents, win possession and use it effectively that he has been most valued.
19. Andy Townsend
Seasons: 8, Appearances: 215, Goals: 13, Assists: 30
Chelsea 92-93, Aston Villa 93-98, Middlesbrough 98-99.
The midfielder seems a little unlucky not to have a bit more to show for his club career, but he was a central part of the team at Chelsea, then Aston Villa, having really come to prominence in the pre-Premier League era at Southampton and Norwich. Pitched in well on the defensive side of things but best with the ball at his feet. He was good pushing forward and had a terrific ability to open things up with his passing.
20. Kenny Cunningham
Seasons: 10, Appearances: 335; Goals: 0 Assists: 16
Wimbledon 1999-2000, Birmingham City 2002-06
The Dubliner moved late in his teens to Millwall but got his Premier League chance at Wimbledon where he established himself as a very capable full back.
It was after moving to Birmingham City, though, and switching to central defence that he really came into his own. He could be tough at times but had more about him than just that and proved adept at organising those around him.
21. Matt Holland
Seasons: 6, Appearances: 202, Goals: 17, Assists: 12
Ipswich 2000-02, Charlton 03-07.
An amazingly consistent performer who probably could have had a much better top-flight career had he bailed on Ipswich when the opportunity first presented itself. A tidy midfielder who worked hard, passed the ball well and could cause opponents problems around the area, he played in every one of their games over a two-year period and particularly impressed over the course of 2000/01. Hit the ground running at Charlton in 03-04, scoring six goals in another strong season.
22. Rory Delap
Seasons: 14, Appearances: 359, Goals: 23, Assists: 21
Derby 1997-01, Southampton 01-05, Sunderland 05-06, Stoke City 08-13.
Delap’s ability to play as either a midfielder or full back contributed to his success and he seemed equally at ease when either trying to score goals or prevent them but he is best remembered for his long throw-ins. So central did they become to the Stoke’s gameplan under Tony Pulis that opponents would move advertising hoardings ahead of away games so as to limit his run up.
23. Ray Houghton
Seasons: 3, Appearances: 105, Goals: 8, Assists: 12
Aston Villa 92-95, Crystal Palace 94-95.
Like a few of his contemporaries – Ronnie Whelan, Dave O’Leary, Kevin Moran – Houghton would feature prominently towards the upper end of this list had his best years been in the Premier League era. Instead the Glasgow-born midfielder sort of flies the flag for the group having made the biggest impression in the rebranded top flight. Was particularly good in his first season at Villa which might have been a title-winning season had the team not run badly out of steam withjust 15 points from their last 11 games. His quality and commitment was still one of the key driving forces in that team.
24. Phil Babb
Seasons: 8, Appearances: 231, Goals: 4, Assists: 4
Coventry 92-95; Liverpool 94-99, Sunderland 02-03.
Babb made his name at Coventry before joining Liverpool for £3.6 million, a major fee, especially for a defender at the time.
At his best, the Londoner looked very capable but his defensive partner, John Scales, once said that that Liverpool team lacked the focus required to really deliver on their talent and Babb seemed as guilty as anyone on that front.
25. Dean Kiely
Seasons: 7, Appearances: 195, Goals: 0, Assists: 2
Charlton 00-06, Portsmouth 05-06, West Brom 08-09.
Something of a late arrival in the Premier League, having spent a decade playing in the lower divisions, Kiely nevertheless showed that he was well up to the challenge of playing in the top flight over the course of five good seasons with Charlton. He was a consistent performer, a solid and reliable decision-maker who was a good shot-stopper and comfortable when coming off his line. Unfortunate on the international front to find himself living in the shadow of Shay Given.